by Lori Horvitz
At twenty, I had graduated from college, moved to Manhattan and gotten a job selling all natural Italian ices from a pushcart. Each morning at the Jane Street depot, we packed carts with blocks of dry ice and big buckets of watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, and lemon ices—seeds and all. Our boss, Larry, assigned us a street corner. I didn’t mind the job. I worked outdoors, got to know different parts of the city and chatted with people throughout the day. And it gave me a respite from my boyfriend, Joseph, who had moved to New York with me, but soon moved away, claiming New York was full of screwed up people and he didn’t want to work for “corporate yuppie scum.” In particularly bad moods, he’d spit at the ground and say, “I’m going to Avenue C,” where drug dealers lined the streets, a death wish for any clean-cut white boy.
We’d been together for a year during college before moving into a Chinatown sublet along with four of my former classmates. Joseph had been ecstatic about living in New York. We strolled fish-smelling streets, ate at Wo Hops on Mott Street and bought little black bean pies from a Chinese bakery on Mulberry Street. We cooked elaborate meals using fresh bok choy, garlic, scallions, and soy sauce. We sauntered past old synagogues on the Lower East Side, bought sour pickles from barrels near Delancey Street and walked up to Norfolk Street where, in 1902, my grandmother was born to Jewish immigrant parents from Vilna. On Orchard Street, vendors offered us cheap socks and underwear, and across Houston Street on Avenue A, we ate $2.75 chicken dinners at the Odessa, a Ukrainian diner. Just north of Canal Street, in Little Italy, we split a piece of cheesecake and Joseph spoke of the ongoing battles between his mother’s parents from Northern Italy and his father’s parents from Sicily.
Like our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who had come to America via Ellis Island, Joseph and I had discovered a new world: smells, tastes, sounds, sights.
Like our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who had come to America via Ellis Island, Joseph and I had discovered a new world: smells, tastes, sounds, sights. On the streets, we walked arm in arm, our hips snuggled.
When he left for his parents’ home in upstate New York after only a month, I had to leave the shared room we’d rented in the Chinatown loft; I couldn’t afford it on my own. I moved into an East Village apartment with a friend who also sold Italian ices, a railroad tenement with a bathtub in the kitchen and the pungent smell of death, which finally I traced to a dead mouse underneath my futon. I got used to roaches creeping along the walls and by the bathtub, and one day the pipes upstairs burst and a big rat scurried down through the piping in our apartment to the apartment below. But I was twenty and glad to be on my own for the first time.
I figured rats and mice and roaches came with the territory, just as Joseph’s bad behavior was part of the package. With love and affection came rage. When I first showed him my artwork, he said, “You’re a talented girl.” But later that day, he raged about the frivolity of art: “All museums should be destroyed and made into community centers for The People.” I called him an asshole and ran out of the room. He ran after me, apologized, held me and said he didn’t really mean it.
My father would also break into rage at moment’s notice, about the neighbor cutting his shrubs down, or one of the kids accidentally knocking over a glass of tomato juice, or my mother expressing her desire to go to Europe. “Always running,” my father said. “Can’t you sit still for a minute?”
For a few weeks, I was Larry’s favorite girl, positioned on the most lucrative corner, Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Greenwich Village. On a sunny Saturday, the busiest Italian Ice day, I pushed my cart to the corner, opened my umbrella and set up the menu and cups. A minute later, a Colonel Sanders look-a-like pushed his Good Humor cart close, then rammed it into mine. “This is my corner!” he said. “Find another one!”
“My boss put me here,” I said. “I can’t leave.”
He rammed my cart again. “Get the hell out of here!”
I rammed back and wondered why I couldn’t defend myself like this against Joseph. And what he’d think now. He’d probably say something about the bourgeois college kid stealing from the working class.
Finally, the Good Humor Man calmed down. We had a silent standoff. It wouldn’t look good to be ramming our carts into each other when trying to make a sale. Customers studied our menus.
During a lull, I asked, “So how long you been doing this?”
“Thirty years,” he said.
“I’m a little retarded.”
I sighed. “It’s really hot out,” I said. “I’m thirsty.”
“Did you have lox this morning?” He pulled a bottle of water from his cart. “Want some water?”
I did have lox that morning. “How did you know?”
He poured me a cup of water. “You’re thirsty. Drink.”
For the rest of the day, between customers, we talked. He told me about his Chihuahua named Rocket and his brother, a famous economics professor. “You married?” he asked.
“I have a boyfriend.”
“Get rid of him,” he said.
I scrunched up my face. “Huh?”
“You’re too good,” he said.
Joseph called and wrote letters, desperately missing me. This was the place where he felt most comfortable, the place where I was just out of reach. He’d visit for a weekend here and there and we’d eat a lot and spend a lot of time in bed. Perhaps this is what I preferred too—the idea of Joseph desperately missing me while I went about my day scooping cantaloupe and watermelon and coconut ices. It was easier, safer, less exhausting than dealing with Joseph in person. During one visit, we played chess, and when it became clear his king was doomed, he upended the board, punched a hole in my roommate’s bedroom door and stormed out of the apartment. I picked up the pieces.
But Joseph had a charming side, the side that drew me in when we met my freshman year of college. In round wire-rimmed glasses and an army jacket, Joseph resembled John Lennon. He’d transferred from a Midwestern college to our small state school thirty minutes north of Manhattan, sacrificing a four-year journalism scholarship to get away from a relationship gone bad, and be closer to his high school best friend, Teddy Dover, a chemistry major who lived down the hall.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Liverpool,” Joseph said.
“Where are you really from?”
“Liverpool, New York,” he said, combing his fingers through his thick brown hair. “A suburb of Syracuse.”
Joseph and Teddy considered themselves anarchists and intellectuals. They talked about Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and I was convinced they were geniuses. When Joseph asked me a question, I felt nervous, tongue-tied. I uttered short responses that might or might not have related to the question.
Joseph: “So what kind of art do you do?”
Me: “Pictures of dogs and mirrors. Sometimes doors.”
Joseph: “Like the French Surrealists?”
Me: “Miniature poodles too.”
When Joseph asked me out, I said no. I’d never had a boyfriend and was scared. So he dated my roommate, and when that didn’t work out, he dated another friend. Yet we still hung around together, all over campus, and played Frisbee for hours. I loved hearing him talk about politics and poetry and the Jersey Pine Barrens, where he had spent childhood summers.
“Maybe we could take a trip there,” he said.
“Yeah, that sounds nice,” I said. Our little fantasy.
He called me “Rainy Day,” his term of endearment. “You’re like a lush green rainy forest.”
In my junior year, Joseph transferred again, to a college three hours north. But I was still his “Rainy Day.” Now and then he sent letters about the political groups he had joined, and how we needed to support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua: Last night I spray-painted fearsome revolutionary slogans on an evil monument to the state and to militarism at a local park—a huge replica of an air force fighter jet now displays these messages in bright red:
US OUT OF AMERICA
He always ended with a reference to Jersey: One of these days…wanna go to South Jersey? Or Please don’t stray. Surf City is only 200 miles away.
A month before my junior year ended, Joseph visited and we sat on my bed and drank White Russians. “These taste like milkshakes,” he said, his back against the brick wall.
He moved next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “You’re a goddess.”
He took his glasses off. “Yeah, you.”
“I thought you were a lesbian,” he said.
“Why’d you think that?”
“You wouldn’t go out with me at first. And you seemed to really enjoy wrestling with your roommates.”
“Men wrestle all the time!”
We kissed again.
Joseph invited me to visit him. “The Grateful Dead are playing in three weeks. I’ll get tickets.”
I got a ride from Acid Sue, who ingested as much acid as she sold. Once there, Joseph barely greeted me, more interested in entertaining a group of hippie girls. Thank heavens Acid Sue was by my side. At the concert, I wrangled my way to the front of the stage, away from Joseph, away from his hippie girls who looked at me askance. Afterward, at his friend’s house, hippies in tie-dye sat on dirty couches and talked politics and set up sleeping bags on the floor. I couldn’t speak. Too angry, too high on acid, a tape-loop played in my head: Why did Joseph invite me here? What if I never come down from this acid trip? At the end of the night, Joseph asked what was wrong. I stared at him, started to bawl, stormed back to the living room and slipped my body into a sleeping bag.
When the semester ended, I wrote to Joseph. Why did you invite me to visit and then treat me like a stranger? He phoned, said he’d gotten involved with another woman and instead of dealing with the situation, had ignored us both. “But I broke up with her,” he said. “I only want you.” The next day, he came to see me. “I made a terrible mistake,” he said, shaking. “Will you come to New Jersey with me? We could go to the boardwalk and see the Pine Barrens.”
We checked into a motel by the boardwalk run by an old Ecuadorian couple, and for three nights, lounged on crumpled motel sheets and drank port wine and ate cheesecake. We examined each other’s bodies, the hidden moles, the little hairs on the back of our necks. We watched Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on TV, ridiculing people whose only concern was money. Joseph said, “I want to devote my life to ‘the struggle’ of ‘The People.’” He told me about his anarchist heroes—Sacco and Vanzetti. Holding his body close to mine, I listened intently, not saying much, embarrassed I didn’t have such high-minded aspirations. I just wanted to travel and make art.
As my summer of scooping ices waned, Joseph grew tired of living with his parents in a depressed suburb and working as a school custodian. He wanted to make another go of living in Manhattan, another go of us. I found an East Village apartment and a production job at an Irish American newspaper. For five months, we cooked gourmet meals, entertained houseguests, worked at respectable jobs. Friends told us that we made a great couple, that we looked alike.
But our stable life lasted only until Joseph lost his paralegal job and was proud of it. “I got fired,” he said, “for using fourteen-letter words.” When he fought for unemployment and won, he swelled even more. He was happy to read Kafka all day since he could no longer be Kafka. His unemployment ran out, but Joseph kept reading. One night when I wouldn’t lend him money to buy pot, he sneered at me and muttered, “You’re a cheap Jew.”
I put my hands on hips and said, “What’d you say?”
“Nothing,” he said, before taking his death-wish walk on Avenue C.
Our conversations revolved around his refusal to look for a job and the merits of television. I argued that TV made people into idiots; he said “The People” needed TV after long days on the assembly line. He found a small black-and-white set in the garbage, jammed a wire hanger in the antenna hole, and watched baseball while smoking cigarettes in our living room. Soon, Joseph didn’t want to escape New York. He wanted to escape me. I told him to leave.
On a sweltering summer morning, Joseph surveyed our tenement flat one last time. “I think I’ve got everything,” he said, eyes darting around. Sweat dribbled down his brow, soaked through his white undershirt, and clung to his lean, muscular torso. I wiped the sink and oven with a smelly sponge. Joseph hoisted the last of his boxes before elbowing the front door open. “Bye, bye,” he said, as if talking to a baby.
I fastened the locks, swept the floor, and smashed a roach dead. Our relationship was over, and for the first time in my life, I’d live alone. I felt lonely and scared. Joseph moved around the corner with his alcoholic buddy, leaving me with a roach-infested apartment, an autobiography of Emma Goldman and a throng of noisy pigeons outside my kitchen window.
The pigeons clucked and cooed and rumbled. I yelled for them to get away, and in seconds, wild wing flutter echoed from the airshaft. Two birds remained. From my refrigerator, I grabbed a rotten apple and threw it. For a moment I found peace, but the pigeons returned. “Get the hell out!” I screamed. “This is my territory!”
How could that fucker leave me? I’ll show him! It was one of those New York summers when the heat was too intense for even a snapping turtle, the summer of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and I tried my hardest to do just that. I kissed lots of guys—a tall, skinny Dutchman who snorted lots of cocaine and worked at the Strand Bookstore; a Jewish writer-guy with a Woody Allen obsession; a sleazy investor in oversized aviator glasses who bought up real estate on the Lower East Side for five thousand dollars a lot. I went to bars and competed with girlfriends to see who could get more phone numbers. I met a nerdy computer guy at a party who took me to dinner and talked really loud—one of those guys who talks so loud you feel sorry for his date.
In my apartment, I listened to the pigeons cooing and making a racket outside. Again, I screamed for them to get away. But the pigeons wouldn’t leave. I threw more rotten apples at them, then added wilted carrots to the ammunition. I listened to bad Phil Collins songs and cried about Joseph. I missed him. I hated him. I walked by his apartment and tried to run into him. The one time I did, he was sitting on his stoop, eating a slice of pizza, grease running down his chin.
“What’s up?” he said, his eyes refusing to meet mine.
“I’m on my way to the grocery store,” I said.
“I got a job as a law librarian for the Harvard Club,” he said, taking a huge bite of pizza.
“You took a job at the Harvard Club?”
After he finished chewing, he said, “It pays the rent.” He wiped the grease off his face. His hair looked greasy too.
“Call me sometime,” I forced out, before running off.
I needed to leave. The pigeons, the roaches, and most of all, Joseph. I’d heard about dirt-cheap vacations to Eastern Bloc countries, organized by an 85-year-old British communist from Huddersfield, a coal-mining town in Northern England. I flipped through the folded Xeroxed pages, skimming descriptions of Polish, Latvian and Bulgarian trips until I found one to Peking via Budapest and Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We could assure you of a splendid holiday at half the usual commercial price. The Trans-Siberian Railway. The trip would depart from England in October. I’d see the Kremlin and Red Square, walk the Great Wall, travel across Siberia during the dead of winter for the equivalent of six hundred dollars. Since I’d be over there, why not stay awhile, travel through Europe? The dollar was strong, I had money saved, and it would be easy to sublet my place.
I booked my ticket but still had two months to go before leaving. I’d see Joseph walking in front of me on Fourteenth Street during the morning rush hour. As the summer wore on, his ass got fatter. Almost bulging out of his pants. Good, I thought. Hope he bloats up into a big wild boar. Once he stopped off at Disco Donut, and I watched him order a glazed donut.
A week later, my phone jerked me awake. I looked at the clock. Midnight.
“Could I come over?” Joseph asked. “I woke up with roaches crawling all over my body.”
I took a deep breath. Fuck him. I should tell him I have company. I should tell him I’m in the middle of a ménage a trois. I should say let the roaches eat you alive, you fucking full-of-shit anarchist. Let them eat you and your fat ass too.
“Hey, it would be great to see you,” he said. “I miss you.”
I hesitated. But I missed him too. “Sure, come over.”
We had a history together. We had learned to live with roaches scurrying across tenement floors, across our bodies, in the middle of the night. We had discovered sticky roach traps and taken pleasure in checking on the catch of the day, those writhing hieroglyphics in all shapes and sizes, wiggling their torsos until they didn’t.
Our reunion lasted the evening. At least in China I wouldn’t have to run into Joseph.
The daily pigeon routine took on a new twist. A neatly arranged circle of twigs appeared on my bathroom ledge. But I swept them away. No you don’t, you fuckers! Not on my ledge! When the circle of twigs reappeared, I brushed them away again. Why the hell did I let that asshole stay over?
The next time I checked, three speckled eggs lay in the nest’s center. I would have to be a monster to sweep them away.
Soon after, three little pink hatchlings with eyes filling their faces replaced the eggs. A plump, rumbling mother pigeon glowered at me. This annoying, filthy mother-bird started out just as sweet. I wanted to run to the nearby bodega and buy a Cuban cigar.
Each day, I checked on the baby pigeons. I left them scraps of stale bread. I even named the babies: Eduardo, Maria and Cecelia. Now they were my family. I didn’t need a fat-assed, greasy-faced anarchist.
The day before I took off on my European adventure, I checked on the baby pigeons. But they had already flown from the darkened airshaft into sapphire blue skies. A thick-woven nest remained, its hardened layers built up from a loose circle of twigs. I slid the nest off the ledge, and within seconds, heard a satisfying thump echo back.